The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy”

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As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance has already turned his memoir into a cottage industry, serving as an explainer-in-chief for the nation’s suddenly important underclass. That Vance in no way represents my Appalachian upbringing is less distressing than than the sheer amount of people who, usually without reading the book, automatically assume that he does.

The easiest argument to make against J.D. Vance, and one that I have made to quickly exit conversations about Hillbilly Elegy, is that he was raised primarily in Middletown, Ohio, close to Dayton and therefore not truly one of the hillbillies for whom he is offering an elegy. Though he did unfortunately grow up in an area experiencing economic downturn, it was more the decline of American manufacturing that occurred as the metals industry closed factories and eliminated union jobs to stay competitive in world markets. Rather than offer his perspective on the hillbillies of Appalachia, he should be writing about the displaced and forgotten factory workers of America’s heartland, the issue being that this particular plight is well-trod ground, depicted in Tom Cruise movies and Bruce Springsteen albums.

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Actual Appalachians, in the wild

Vance would also have a harder time making a case as a child of the rust belt as he does for being a hillbilly: ARMCO, later rebranded as AK Steel, continued to operate at a high level in Middletown until a union lockout in 2006, sparing Vance and his family the devastation felt in places like Youngstown, Ohio or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In order to set himself apart, Vance has to mine his family’s Appalachian heritage.

As a reader, I found Vance’s main thesis in Hillbilly Elegy to be that Appalachians are a shiftless bunch seemingly unprepared to realize the American dream in the way of people in other parts of the country. In the author’s own words:

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class. And when the dust clears — when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity — there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.

Leaving the undercurrent of self-loathing completely alone, Vance presents the spendthrift ways of the hillbilly, combined with violence and substance abuse, as the root problem to be solved. This is a very superficial analysis of what is an observable pattern of behavior in Appalachia, though there are many more stories of families who stretched what little money they had to send a child to college or provide for extended family members.

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More real, honest-to-goodness hillbillies

As a child once removed from Appalachian culture, Vance observed men in Ohio who expected to work their entire careers for a company and make a comfortable living. The factory provided reliable, reasonably safe employment that should have, and in many cases did, allow the next generation a pathway out of poverty. Vance’s mother did attend college and became a nurse, something that he glosses over to highlight her shortcomings and his struggle. Vance’s take on Appalachians, particularly his family, may be uncharitable–but choosing not to fully consider the culture which he is critiquing is inexcusable.

The two most prominent industries in the Appalachian region, mining and timber, are high risk and low reward for the worker. The spending habits Vance finds so odious arise from an economy of fluctuation. Many Appalachian workers–but particularly those in the mining and timber industry–found their livelihoods subject to many outside forces. Company bosses were always looking for a way to maximize profits, and often did so by driving down wages or threatening mine shutdowns. Timber in Appalachia had a very short span of productivity for the worker, as most hillsides were clear cut, enriching absent owners and leaving loggers stuck in a mire of their own creation.

Vance does not seriously explore this unbalanced economic system that kept workers poor while enriching out of state companies. It is a short and unfortunate leap from Appalachians living on scrip or in a company house to running up unrealistic credit card bills. The miner or logger often found himself owing to the bosses at the end of the week. Owing to a credit card company is not vastly different. Vance, rather than exploring the issue deeply or empathetically, simply offers his family’s narrative as a touchstone and casts himself as the hero in it.

Writing a memoir in one’s thirties exhibits a healthy amount of hubris, but Vance spares few details about his family’s strife and his unique blend of talent and grit that allows him to rise above it. Though he pays small homage to his grandmother and a few others, Vance makes it clear that his struggle is mainly a singular one:

Mom had begun using again. She’d stolen some family heirlooms from her fifth husband to buy drugs (prescription opiates, I think), and he’d kicked her out of the house in response. They were divorcing and she had nowhere to go.

I’d sworn to myself that I’d never help Mom again, but the person who made that oath to himself had changed. I was exploring, however uneasily, the Christian faith that I had discarded years earlier. I had learned, for the first time, the extent of Mom’s childhood emotional wounds. And I realized those wounds would not heal, even for me.

This passage is lad literature worthy of James Frey or Augusten Burroughs, openly confessional  and concerned primarily with the deep feelings and struggle of the protagonist. It is my personal belief that an Appalachian would not air out family business in public at all, much less to curry favor with outsiders to the culture. In any case, it is unfair for Vance to make assumptions about the whole of Appalachia based on his life and family. I know much more about Vance’s family than I care to, and it is enough to say that they are hardly archetypal of the region.

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Yes, also not Vance’s people

And Vance, as he portrays himself in the book, tries for soulful perseverance but comes up with smug saintliness. As a human being who has lived forty-one years, I refuse on principle to believe any memoir where the protagonist comes off looking as good as J.D. Vance.

And this is the only real question to pose about Hillbilly Elegy: What would possess a bright and concerned Appalachian to write a hit piece on his own people? His connection with Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital could give rise to all sorts of hypotheses, the most probable being an eventual run for the US Senate in Ohio. Vance has most recently garnered publicity for launching a non-profit to help in Middletown, though details are scant. Vance might actually believe that Hillbilly Elegy and this new venture can help people, and hopefully it does. What J.D. Vance needs to realize is that to help someone, a person should listen and embrace, rather than merely sit back in judgement.

R. Mike Burr is a native West Virginian and public school teacher who resides happily with his wife, two children, and two dogs in Atlanta. His work has appeared previously in Prefix magazine and other publications.